Off the back of his stellar SS17 show, we talk to Telfar Clemens and dissect the secret of his success
For over ten years, Telfar Clemens has been a prized if criminally undervalued genius of unisex fashion in New York. Routinely introducing concepts, silhouettes, and functions in clothing seasons before fashion has the opportunity to catch up to his ideas, Telfar has emerged the opposite of a flash in the pan – a confident, focused designer catching fire in slow motion, a volcanic eruption in HD leaving molten ash that forms mountains over time. He’s long been embraced by the art establishment, participating in numerous biennials (including one on view now in Berlin) and collaborating with artists like Asger Carlsen and Lizzie Fitch. The fact that some of the most prestigious retailers are only catching up now is something of a precious embarrassment.
The premise of Telfar’s design aesthetic is simple yet conceptual: he takes banal, normal garments and twists them, highlighting their absurdity and holding a distinctly original funhouse mirror up to what society deems appropriate dress. His SS17 show, his flat-out best (I said it), felt like ecstasy kicking in at just the right moment when a dour election year of political psychodrama and Olympian controversies have given us reason enough to sacrifice faith in human decency. He even had Olympic athletes Torie Bowie (track) and Miles Chamley-Watson (fencing) walking in the show. They seemed confused. It added to the quizzical atmosphere that accompanied an appropriately astounding collection.
“Prep doesn’t exist, punk doesn’t exist, hip hop doesn’t exist. There are no genres anymore. So we wanted to reissue the idea of prep not being an idea” – Telfar Clemens
“It’s a comment on subcultures,” Telfar told me in the igneous basement of a midtown White Castle, where he was holding his rapturous, claustrophobic afterparty. “Prep doesn’t exist, punk doesn’t exist, hip hop doesn’t exist. There are no genres anymore. So we wanted to reissue the idea of prep not being an idea.” If it sounds confusing, Telfar breaks it down further. “Prep is actually the new subculture. Nobody is wearing black makeup. If you’re a goth, I think you should actually be goth and represent the fringe prep version of that. She might be homeless, but she’s kind of preppy. She comes from money but she’s on drugs. It’s Aeropostale, Martha Stewart, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie... it’s all of these things. I took everything I thought I hated and I turned it into something I love.”
In the concrete, this meant nylon poly-blend track pants with puckered Telfar logo reliefs, pre-school rugby stripes, “gladiator socks”, apron-polos and polo-cardigans – not exactly hybrids, more like reductions. Building on his popular swimwear, Telfar continued experiments with exposing male flesh, resulting in looks like a layered men's one-piece swimsuit that was oddly sexual yet neutered by its corniness. Everything came in a bright and dopey colour scheme that felt psychedelic and familiar yet amusingly original (this sensation was aided by the impressive show production which featured a faux-track-and-field runway and a narcotic electronic score by Aaron David Ross featuring a voiceover by the artist Ryan Trecartin: “It’s not an outfit, it’s a win-win situation,” he said among other brilliant one-liners, pitched low.)
“Those are colours that people actually wear!” Telfar cried. “Those are the colours and the clothes that people actually wear and that are available, and that’s what I wanted to play on. All of this came from me, Babak (Radboy, creative director) and Avena (Gallagher, stylist) collaborating by looking at people’s clothes in the most critical, dissected way, looking at what people actually dress like, and confusing it.”
Could this represent the end of the Zara model: essentially a trickling up rather than a trickling down? “We’re actually moving it forward and making it broader,” Telfar says. “Instead of what Old Navy and H&M are offering, I’m offering but in this cut. It’s reverse consumerism.”
Backstage, none other than Stefano Pilati was beaming from the experience. “He’s the only designer who doesn’t notice or care about what all the other cool designers are doing,” one showgoer explained to him. “That’s why it's amazing!” Pilati shouted. “He should never lose that quality, it’s very rare.”